President Joe Biden has called to replace 100 percent of the country’s lead pipes as part of his American Jobs Plan, to prevent the toxic chemical from flaking off into our drinking water. Cities should take a page from Newark, which treated this like the health emergency it is, and got the job done way ahead of time.
Not only did Newark replace nearly all of its 18,500 lead pipes quickly – raising the money through a bond to speed things up and make it free for homeowners – it involved local people in the effort. The city created an apprentice program that trained 50 Newark residents, 32 of whom are still on the job, and provided help to local businesses so they could bid for pieces of the project.
“We’re fixing a problem in our community, so it only makes sense that there should be an opportunity for our people, especially during COVID, to benefit,” Mayor Ras Baraka said.
Plumber James Reaves, a subcontractor on this project, knows the struggle well. “As minority contractors, we don’t really have the opportunity to be a primary contractor that much,” he says. “The bigger companies have the $10 million bond that can get the job, and they turn around and hire the minority contractor, so he can still have work. That’s me.”
Reaves, who is 60, got his start as an unpaid maintenance man for his mother, a landlord in Newark, then learned the plumbing trade in the Navy. Now he’s overseeing apprentices swap out the lead pipes. “A lot of the minority guys we’re working with, they couldn’t do that type of service at first, but now everybody’s learning, and I can just leave the guys to work, and they can do the services by themselves,” he said.
His dream is to eventually get a big contract like this himself. His 22-year-old apprentice, Talid Broxton, looks forward to getting his plumbing license and starting his own business, under his own name. “We take care of our city,” he said. “When we’re doing the water lines, it’s like we’re doing a personal job for ourselves.”
So give Baraka his due: Not only is he fixing a public health crisis, he’s fighting unemployment in his city with good, living wage jobs.